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Mark Palermo detects an idiot movie in disguise.

“Fear thy neighbour,” is the basis for Borat! and Babel, yet neither is as politically courageous as their admirers insist. Both films seek escapism by reflecting the absurd norms of human interaction.

Borat!: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan gets away with a lot because it’s consistently very funny. Sacha Baron Cohen takes his Da Ali G Show character Borat Sagdiyev, a cluelessly offensive Kazakhstani reporter, for a cross-country investigation of the USA. The film, much of which involves Borat’s unscripted encounters with real people, is a feel-good enterprise only by assuring viewers of their intellectual superiority (itself a brand of intolerance).

Cohen stages his gags with a fearlessness where viewer-discomfort is part of the thrill. Cohen and director Larry Charles comment on anti-social norms, wringing their best laughs from people reacting to Borat’s foreign indiscretion. Other moments, like Borat bonding with the Earth’s most bigoted frat boys, attain a comedy of terror. There’s question of which of these encounters are entirely dramatized. Because the audience knows that Borat is a put-on, he doesn’t come across as a living character so much as Cohen playing a role. This is usually fine, but the staged “story moments” between Borat and his producer are tiring.

The mildly satiric element sells Borat! to viewers looking for Bush-era confirmation that most Americans are dumber than they are. It’s a terrifically dressed idiot-comedy. The burn is that it’s praised by pundits who would never see an idiot-comedy starring Tom Green or Adam Sandler.

Insisting that Borat! is brave is making excuses for its simple comedic function. Exposing the prejudices of the white working class and the comfortably rich is safer than Freddy Got Fingered pointing out the dehumanization in sensitive two-dimensional movie roles for the disabled, the sanctimony of childbirth and the infantilization of sexual abuse victims. That’s true liberalism.


There’s progress in the human divide being made a hot topic in pop art. It provides the one standout on the new My Chemical Romance album, as Gerard Way sings, “Teenagers scare the living shit out of me.” Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu approaches this subject mournfully in Babel. The emphasis on theme over plot-contrivance (his 21 Grams and Amores perros) gives the heavy-handedness the saving grace of abstraction. It’s Inarritu’s first feature that doesn’t feel like a fatalistic script exercise.

Two young brothers in Morrocco are practicing their shooting skills, and take aim at a bus. It pierces the window, and hits an American (Cate Blanchett), who’s travelling with her husband (Brad Pitt). The couple’s children are left with their maid (Adrianna Barazza), who makes a big mistake in taking them across the Mexican border. And in the most poetic thread, a deaf teen (Rinko Kikuchi) in Tokyo degrades herself to find physical love.

Working with his usual screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, the connections between the storylines are mercifully slight. But they serve a concept that the minimal separation between people makes the difficulty of receiving help even more insane. Babel’s contempt for the way bureaucratic authority is used to trample the weak neither assumes a position of privilege or becomes a sermon. Through it all is the motif of children at prey in a social order that’s ready to destroy them.

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Vol 26, No 42
March 14, 2019

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